Editorial: Not the First or Only Time

Editorial: Not the First or Only Time

Secrecy around police shootings has been a problem for at least a decade.

The official position of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on the need for changes in policy after the shooting of John Geer by police in Springfield in August of 2013 appears to be that this is the first time police policies have been a problem:

“Policies for handling police-involved incidents, which served us well for decades, were inadequate in this complicated situation.”

Police-involved shootings have resulted in excruciating obfuscation and delay by Fairfax County Police dating back more than a decade. In this editorial, we refer to two high-profile cases, but these are not the only cases where police secrecy had caused incalculable pain to families while damaging the credibility of the police and other county officials. And this issue is not limited to Fairfax County. Alexandria and Arlington use similar approaches to limit public access to information.

Most Northern Virginia residents think very highly of their police. We are very safe here. People understand that sometimes mistakes happen, that sometimes force is needed, and that sometimes police will exercise deadly force. What they are unlikely to accept is secrecy that shrouds mistakes, and failure to take responsibility for explaining events of deadly force.

We’ll quote the father of David Masters who wrote a letter to the Mount Vernon Gazette (a Connection Newspaper) in June, 2013, two months before John Geer was shot:

“I am the father of David Masters. David was shot to death by a Fairfax County police officer on Nov. 13, 2009 while sitting in his truck at a stop at the intersection of Route 1 and Fort Hunt Road. I don’t know any more about the circumstances of this grim fatality now than I did then and now, as then, the records of this tragedy are not available to anyone outside the police department. The officer who shot my son was ultimately and I must say secretly fired by the then police chief, David Rohrer. But even that was done without any admission of culpability by anyone in the county. … I don’t understand why the Virginia Freedom of Information Act gives blanket exemption to police matters. ... As it is now, the police department can, and seemingly does, operate in a culture of complete autonomy without fear that its actions will be held up to any kind of scrutiny.”

The Connection reported in 2006 about the accidental shooting of an unarmed Salvatore J. "Sal" Culosi Jr. during his arrest on gambling charges:

“With red-rimmed eyes and her voice cracking, Anita Culosi expressed outrage Thursday evening [March 30, 2006] that a Fairfax County police officer will not be charged with a crime for accidentally killing her 37-year-old son. ‘My son is laying in a cemetery,’ she said, surrounded by family members holding framed pictures of her son. “That man pulled a trigger and shot my son dead.’"

Anita Culosi's son, Salvatore J. "Sal" Culosi Jr., was accidentally shot to death by a Fairfax County SWAT team officer on Jan. 24 outside his Fair Oaks townhouse. He had been under investigation for illegal sports gambling for the previous three months, accepting at least $28,000 in bets from an undercover Fairfax County detective.

In July, 2012, more than a year before John Geer was shot and killed, a group of citizens identified four cases, including Masters and Culosi, where police secrecy continued to block questions about shooting deaths. Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability characterized “questionable circumstances” around the shootings, noted that no one, including the families of the deceased victims, had been able to obtain a police incident report despite the fact that the four cases are closed.

CCPA Executive Director Nicholas Beltrante sent letters asking for the release of documents, “to find out what happened in the shooting deaths, why deadly force was used instead of a taser gun or beanbag gun, and to find out if police misconduct took place.”

Beltrante said: “Our letters will highlight to the public the importance of amending the Virginia FOIA to require the release of police incident reports, and the value of improving police accountability by creating an independent police citizen oversight panel made up of Fairfax county citizens …. Unnecessary use of deadly force by the police, if it is occurring, will undermine the integrity and confidence of the public in our police and our elected officials.”

The revelations about the shooting of John Geer as a result of a civil lawsuit seriously undermine the credibility of the investigation process.

Aside from the officer who shot Geer, four other officers on the scene told investigators that same day that they were shocked by the shot that killed Geer and thought the shooting was unnecessary. (One officer described his first reaction: “WTF.”) There was no weapon in view, although Geer was a gun owner and had a holstered gun nearby. Geer made great effort to be predictable in his actions, asking permission to scratch his nose, otherwise keeping his hands up on the doorframe.

But a day after the shooting, police released the following update:

“The preliminary investigation indicates that when officers arrived on the scene, they were met by an individual who displayed what appeared to be a weapon in a threatening manner and was subsequently shot.”

And last month, before the statements of the other officers were released, the police released this update with the name of the officer:

“Geer was reported as having multiple firearms inside the home, displaying a firearm that he threatened to use against the police, and refused the officers’ requests that he remain outside and speak to them. Officers, including a trained negotiator, attempted to peaceably resolve the situation. They spoke with Geer for more than 30 minutes as he stood in the doorway of his home. When Geer began lowering his hands at one point during the negotiations, PFC Adam Torres fired a single shot that struck Geer.”

But investigators knew that the negotiator had not seen Geer holding a weapon.

We don’t agree with this statement by Bulova: “The Board of Supervisors has taken the steps needed to ensure its policies allow for justice to be fairly and swiftly served.”

This is not an isolated case. The Board of Supervisors must demand transparency from the police.